The Family v. The Rock
Sydney Morning Herald/1992-09-11
By Col Allison
For the past month in Cobham Children's Court, a 41-year-old grandmother, Miss Pauline Rockley, a senior official of the Department of Community Services (DoCS) has dominated the care hearing involving children of the Christian fundamentalist sect, The Family. And indications are that Miss Rockley has another two weeks of intensive legal probing to go.
Despite two early breakdowns under the relentless cross-examination of a battery of barristers representing the parents and their 65 children, Miss Rockley is living up to her nickname, "The Rock", bestowed as much for her imposing stature as for her steadfastness in the witness box.
Despite the flu and the thorough grilling she has endured, especially from the suave Parramatta barrister, Mr Mark Trench, 44, The Rock has refused to crumble. But stress fractures have been seen by all attending the closed inquiry.
She has made some damaging concessions. These include the startling admission that the department has "no specific evidence" to prove its claim that all the children have been sexually abused and psychologically programmed to lie to the authorities to hide what goes on in the sect, 130 of whom live communally in huge, rented houses. Australia-wide the sect claims about 1,000 members, and 7,000 worldwide.
Miss Rockley insists the department will prove, from the testimony of ex-members of the sect, formerly the reviled Children of God (CoG) cult, and"the literature", that the children are in need of State care. The Crown alleges that vast quantities of CoG material was found by police in the pre-dawn raids on three sect houses in the Hills district of Sydney's north-west on May 15. In the literature was a bizarre form of "religious witnessing", prostitution of women over 16 called "hooking for Jesus".
During the raid, a 30-strong contingent of police, accompanied by DoCS field officers, kicked in doors (three in one house at Glenhaven) and barged in. There they pulled sleeping children from their beds.
Bewildered and crying for their parents, the children, aged three to 16, were taken to three "departmental residential care units", where they were interviewed about their communal lifestyles and sex. They were separated from young siblings and denied access to their parents.
A simultaneous raid took place in Melbourne, the catalyst for the timing of the NSW swoop. It was the culmination of five months of police surveillance in what was codenamed "Project A". The project began on November 21, 1991 after the Organised Crime Section of the NSW Police Services' Task Force Group received information through another operation called OMEN. OMEN was set up to examine the existence of satanic cults believed to be involved in the sacrifice and sexual abuse of children.
A spin-off from OMEN was a call to police from a prospective real-estate buyer who inspected a house at Buxton, near Mittagong in the Southern Highlands, and found about 40 children who, she claimed, looked drugged and possibly ill-treated. When the police and DoCS inspected the premises the children had moved. They have not been found, the court has heard, though the Herald understands the group is now in Brisbane.
But, as Miss Rockley conceded last week, the police investigation into The Family sect revealed no findings to warrant any criminal charges of any kind. The police have decided the Cobham hearing is now simply a child-care case.
In custody at Brougham, Linwood and Ormond detention centres, the children found their quarters "all new". As one teenager said: "They were ready for us and obviously planned a long stay. Everything was new.
"There were books and toys everywhere, all new ... they said we could have anything we wanted; we just had to ask and they would buy it for us. The next day they spent $2,000 on the little kids alone and heaven knows how much they spent on us. But we knew they were just trying to bribe us... "
The cost of comfort, if not security, was the relentless questioning. Part of one interview read to the court concerned "question 369 of 400-odd". The children were questioned by DoCS experts and a police officer.
A four-year-old girl, puzzled by the word "masturbation", had its meaning explained in clinical detail. An 11-year-old boy, questioned extensively about sex he said he knew nothing about, eventually burst into tears and cried for his parents.
Miss Rockley, the formal applicant for care, conceded another numbing point in relation to those interviews. Some were inaccurately recorded because the departmental officers invariably took down longhand notes, not always word for word.
While the children were undergoing their ordeal, the affable Cobham magistrate, Mr Ian Forsyth, 54, a grandfather himself, was deciding their fate in a preliminary hearing. After a week of highly emotive legal argument -including a definitive history of religious persecution by the noted silk, Dr Greg Woods QC, who had been hired by the purposely abrasive solicitor, Mr Chris Murphy - Mr Forsyth set the children free.
Tears of joy and groans of relief flooded the tiny courtroom at Werrington when he announced to a packed gallery of parents and journalists: "I believe it is in the best interests of all the children to be allowed to go home."
The parents (police allege most arrived here from India in 1989 after several sect members were jailed there by immigration authorities) handed in their passports. They agreed no-one would leave the State without the court's permission and to allow DoCS officers access to their homes.
The Cobham hearing has heard 170 witnesses so far and the court is "awash with paperwork", including almost 400 affidavits, which even Mr Forsyth has found bewildering. The magistrate is set for the long haul. He has ruled time and again against points of law aimed at short-circuiting the proceedings, saying he intends sitting through all the evidence in the children's interests.
Barring the department throwing in the towel, always a possibility under the mounting political pressure, or a successful application to the Supreme Court (expected soon) to have the proceedings declared "an abuse of process", the magistrate is likely to be sitting until at least March next year. The cost? Perhaps $7 million or more.
The cost to the children, according to Greg Walsh, their instructing solicitor, is "cruel".
"Every day they live with the knowledge that people out there believe they are liars," he says. "Worse, it hurts them immensely to think that many people really believe their parents have sexually assaulted them when it's just not true."
In relation to this, Miss Rockley made another big concession - nowhere in a key document seized in the raid, and from which she drew "great strength", was it suggested it was "OK for adults to have sex with children". In fact, she eventually admitted, the document said the reverse: it was not OK.
With the preliminary bout over, and the children back home, the stage was set for the inquiry into their care, which began on July 29.
As the magistrate himself said, it is an inquiry unprecedented in the annals of Australian law. Nobody is on trial. No charges have been laid. The case is not governed by the laws of evidence, though it is conducted loosely along the lines of a trial or commission, but very informally. Because of this, anybody can hold an impromptu press conference outside the court, American style, to deny any point, any time they like. The kids have held their own "pressers"; the parents do it all the time. The golden rule: no names that can identify any children.
Chris Murphy is a master of the technique. On the few occasions he has appeared at Cobham, stirring up the court extraordinarily, he's extracted the maximum publicity from doorstop interviews and full-scale media conferences. It was in that way that he dropped the bombshell that "a magistrate and a solicitor" were being subpoenaed by his office. But it was only inside the court that he actually named them and pointed to allegations "suggesting interference".
At one press conference outside the court, a house leader of the Sydney sect was asked outright how his sex life was. Without batting an eyelid he said: "Not as varied nor as interesting as when we were in the Children of God."
Many of the 19 families whose children are the subject of care readily admit belonging to the infamous cult. The group was formed in the 1960s in California from the teachings of the alcoholic radio evangelist, David Brant Berg, who now lives as a semi-recluse in Japan, aged 74. He fled there in the late 1970s, after breaking up the group, to avoid US Government tax investigations into the cult's finances.
After the dissolution, the Children of God evolved into the Family of Love, aka The Family. Most of the literature and videos currently being received by the sect come from Japan.
Born in 1919, Berg was flung out of the Missionary Alliance Church in Arizona in 1950 after a sexual affair with a minor. He married and had four children.
His anti-establishment preachings attracted the drop-outs and drug addicts of society. Berg gave them new names and personalities, converting them into his "Teens for Christ", the "Revolutionaries for Jesus" and finally, CoG. He transformed himself into "Moses" and dictated Mo Letters with illustrations showing him as a lion and Christ as a leering debaucher in paradise.
The cult's beliefs were described by an American Jewish organisation, the Anti-Defamation League, as a frenzied pot-pourri of messages involving dreams and revelations, biblical misquotations (some say misinterpretations), gossip, sex and anti-Semitism.
The cult preaches a final judgment in which a Great Dictator will arrive, an anti-Christ possessed by Satan, who will dispose of all religious and ideological differences, economic problems and the threat of nuclear war. Then he will invade Israel and abolish all forms of religion. The world will be purged, America wiped out and then Christ will reappear to be welcomed by loyal Children of God followers who will have survived the holocaust.
Sex was a major factor in the cult's philosophy and the underlying reason the care cases are now unfolding in Sydney and Melbourne. When Miss Rockley says, day by day, that she is also relying on "the literature" as evidence of sexual abuse of the children, she is referring to the CoG material found in sect houses. The question implied is always: if the sect has evolved, as it claims, into a squeaky-clean, born-again fundamentalist group (albeit a tolerant one allowing highly-sexed individuals more than one bed partner with the consent of his/her regular mate), why does it cling to its past? Why the literature to this day?
The department believes The Family is the Children of God cult hiding its true identity and practices from "mainstream society" by isolation and the mind control of its children. The sect readily admits much of its revenue is raised by 10 per cent tithes, donations from fellow members worldwide.
Berg's attitude to sex was notorious. It is claimed he once told an American newspaper that he had always harboured a sexual desire for his mother and both his daughters and had been engaged in sex with his younger daughter, "Faithy", for years. The sect denies this.
Berg or Moses David or just plain "Dad", as he was known by followers, began advocating incest and sex between children in his Mo Letters in the late'70s. He introduced "flirty-fishing", using Christ's instructions to his disciples: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Men were captioned in jokey cartoons as "fish", cult women over 16 became "the happy hookers for Jesus". According to a US report, at one stage the CoG cult claimed 971,489 flirty-fishing "witness contacts" (attempted seductions) in 10 years, 222,280"fish loved" (sexual encounters) and 105,706 "souls won" (contributions gained).
At a recently-concluded Melbourne Children's Court hearing into a custody battle involving sect children (not the case arising from Project A), a former Melbourne solicitor described how he was "fished" by a married woman member with whom he had a relationship for four years. In that time he lavished on her clothes, money, food and an $8,500 van. This man may give evidence at the Sydney hearing, along with 24 other former members of the sect, many of whom have already testified in Melbourne.
As counsel for the department, Ms Robin Tupman, said in her opening address- which caused so much consternation it was suppressed for days pending a hearing in the Supreme Court: "They will identify most, if not all of the literature, that was removed from the households and will tell Your Worship that that literature formed the credo by which the group lived."
Ms Tupman outlined allegations of sexual abuse of children, including the induction of young boys into sex with mature women in sect households around Australia and prostitution by some teenage girls.
But, say the barristers for the parents - Robert Cavanagh, a major player in many royal commissions, including the Aboriginal deaths in custody inquiry, and James Barnett - the ex-members' evidence is historic, based on living with the group from two to seven years ago.
The Sydney sect leader, a 48-year-old father of six, claims that all the charges ever made against the group he once belonged to, the CoG, have been trumped up and have failed in court. In a recent newsletter entitled"Religious Persecution", he said: "The facts are that no such cases have been substantiated in any way, shape or form. There is absolutely no evidence to back up these trumped-up charges."
In the Melbourne custody case just concluded (not the larger Project A case), the Chief Magistrate of the Victorian Children's Court dismissed a police application for supervision of eight Family children. Allegations were made by the estranged husband of the children's mother, a sect member, last year. The hearing began in November.
After the dismissal - the news of which flew around the sect families playing football outside the court at Cobham like news of the Second Coming -lawyers called unsuccessfully for the larger case to be dropped. In that case, Community Services Victoria is seeking to supervise 67 Family children.
The magistrate dismissed the case on August 10 on the grounds that the eight children, aged between two and 15, were not likely to be emotionally or intellectually damaged if they continued to live with the sect families. He also dismissed allegations of any sexual and physical abuse.
But he found that the children had suffered some emotional or psychological harm, mostly because of the sect's isolation and its narrow, fundamentalist educational practices.
He was also concerned about the poor relationship fostered between the children and their father, who left the sect.
The magistrate questioned whether the Children's Court was ever intended to inquire into the practices of sects and minority groups. "The court in this application has entered into dangerous territory... it is, in my opinion, unlikely that Parliament's intention was to allow for this type of inquiry."